Corridors of myths

Newspapers, radio and television have a growing role in the reinforcement of dubious messages. Why growing? Because in the past editorial resources were larger, enabling more detailed research into stories; and the awful hanging, ominous shadow of PR was absent.

When I became a journalist, it was more important to be accurate than to be on message. In those days, “on message” was not a phrase that carried any meaning for us. We had other problems, of course.

Nowadays, certain “on message” assumptions are encouraged, most obviously in the field of climatology. Any reporter, writing on practically any theme, will drop in remarks about global warming, rising sea levels and the danger of CO2 “pollution” without having the vaguest notion about whether they are accurate or not. They are usually not, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

It happens in other areas, too. For instance, there is an assumption in the corridors of newspaper power – and in other media – that speed is to blame for most accidents. Research has proved that this is not at all the case, but the myth persists.

My local paper, the Eastern Daily Press, carried a story this morning (September 12) about the very welcome drop in deaths and injuries on the roads. And the headline was unexceptionable: “Pricey petrol slows road death rate”. The obvious logic here is that more expensive fuel has cut down journeys, with a resultant fall in accidents.

But the first paragraph of the story takes a different, more familiar tack. The death toll fell “as drivers eased off the throttle to beat soaring fuel prices”. Road safety experts generally were apparently saying this, though we have no real evidence of it. When pushed, the manager of Norfolk County Council’s casualty reduction team would only go as far as to that “if drivers are being a bit less heavy on the accelerator this can only help”, which may or may not be the case.

The operations manager for the Norfolk Safety Camera Partnership said he had been “getting the impression that people are speeding less”, which is pretty lukewarm, considering how he makes his living. And it is not until the last five words of the article that we get to the real, obvious reason, from an RAC spokesman: “there were fewer cars on the road”.

Why do reporters get into unthinking ruts like this? Are they under pressure or is it all their own work? I don’t know, but it’s sad that it takes a reader to make the obvious point that driving too slowly is more dangerous, not less. Writing in the same edition of the same paper, a person from Aylsham calls deliberately slow drivers “stoogers”.

One stooger wrote to a national paper to say: “I maintain a resolute 45mph …if others get too close I slow down even more for the sake of their own safety and mine”. Any decent driver would know that this would have precisely the opposite effect, but that view does not penetrate to those who write road safety stories. The EDP reader has it precisely right: it is “breathtaking, arrogant self-righteousness”. But there’s a lot of that about.

Later on in the same paper is an amusing example of this obsession with slowness that infects not only the media but local politicians. We read that a blanket 20mph limit for residential roads in Norwich is being discussed. An almost irresistible idea for those in greeny power. How to get it past the electorate?

Clearly a pilot scheme. As long as accidents don’t increase during that period, it can be hailed a success, and then it can be rolled out over the city. Again the headline is accurate – “Blanket 20mph limit being considered”: at least the sub-editors are on the ball.

But what about the story? Mostly accurate and careful enough, I’m delighted to say. We learn that a public consultation is planned, which is worrying, because that usually means it’s all a fait accompli – a suspicion confirmed when we are told what the whole scheme could cost: £350,000, since you ask. Mostly on buying all those lovely street-cluttering signs, I suppose.

The proposer of the scheme is given the usual tired waffle in favour of it, and if one were to go by the article, no-one is against. This is implicitly confirmed by the last paragraph, which reads: “Norwich will become the third city in the country to have a blanket 20mph limit.” No ifs, no alternatives: it’s all decided.

Presumably that’s an editorial decision.